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Bay of Fires on ABC review: excruciating attempts at comedy

The ABC's new show reels between comedy and drama in a stressful and frustrating way, hiding its stakes from both its characters and the audience.

Why is ABC’s new series called Bay of Fires, considering that it’s set in Tasmania’s west, and the actual Bay of Fires is in the north-east? Welcome to the first mystery in Mystery Bay – aka ‘Misery Bay’, in the grand tradition of Defaced Smalltown Welcome Signs – a paradigmatic Small Rural Town Full of Dark Secrets.

So far, so parodic, right? Surely it’s eight episodes of fun fish-out-of-water antics as a pampered rich city lady, unwillingly relocated here with her two kids under witness protection, is forced to deal with various eccentric locals?

Well, no. This tonally inconsistent show also features the kind of graphic violence, gunplay and explosions, underworld dealings and high-stakes paper trails you’d expect from a conspiracy thriller. Waiting for the series to reveal its mysteries is the main reason to tune in of a Sunday night, because its attempts at comedy are simply excruciating to watch.

It doesn’t benefit from coming so hot on the heels of Deadloch, whose status as a rural-noir genre parody was clearly and enjoyably (if broadly) articulated, while the actual crime investigation remained intriguing on its own narrative terms. Deadloch indulged the procedural pleasures of rural noir yet was ruthlessly willing to lampoon the genre’s clichés.

Read: Deadloch review: McCartney and McLennan look to kill it in Prime crime comedy

Bay of Fires, meanwhile, feels out of control. It reels between comedy and drama in a stressful and frustrating way, hiding its stakes from both its characters and the audience. (This is the same problem I found with The Messenger.)

Co-creator, producer and star Marta Dusseldorp has likened the challenge of working with what the ABC has billed as the show’s ‘darkly comedic’ tone to ‘tap-dancing on a tightrope’. But the thing is: a tightrope has tension.

‘Dark comedy’ needs to offer a distinct approach, such as ‘treating horror and tragedy as farce’, ‘making genuine dangers and threats seem silly’, or ‘making jokes about grim, taboo topics’. But Bay of Fires is more like ‘this scene will have the fast pace, exaggerated characterisation and zany misapprehensions of screwball comedy but no actual jokes, and then the next scene will be played as a straight thriller, with an ominous soundtrack and a real sense of risk and fear’.

Veteran screenwriters Andrew Knight (Jack Irish, SeaChange) and Max Dann (Mako Mermaids, Bed of Roses) have worked successfully within hybrid genres before, so it’s strange that they’d be behind something this slack.

Capability versus incompetence

Dusseldorp plays Anika Van Cleef, the pampered CEO of ProsperAus Finance – a role she inherited when her father (John Stanton) retired, and which she shows no evidence of doing well. Like the show she stars in, she’s infuriatingly complacent.

So when a harried IT guy, Kumar (Nikhil Singh), shows up unexpectedly at her luxurious home to urgently hand her a USB drive containing something he found in a ProsperAus internal investigation, and then the next day two Chechen hitmen try to murder her on her way to work, Anika fails to make the connection.

She’s unexpectedly saved by Airini (Rachel House), a brusque, unflappable official whose cool competence contrasts with Anika’s flustered flailing. Brusquely, Aireni gives Anika a folder containing her new identity, ‘Stella Heikkinen’, instructing her to grab her kids Otis (Imi Mbedla) and Iris (Ava Caryofyllis) from their posh private school and lie low immediately in remote Mystery Bay, Tasmania.

House has a wonderful gift for deadpan, and as Airini she reminded me of the bizarrely committed social worker she played in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But in that film, the character’s action-movie intensity (‘I’m like a Terminator!’) was clearly a joke; here, she’s made to say Terminator-style lines like ‘I’m the only person who can keep you alive’ with no irony at all.

Dusseldorp’s performance, meanwhile, is simultaneously the most dramatic onscreen and the most unrealistically clownish for any given scenario. ‘Stella’ is used to having other people solve her problems and smooth over her inconveniences – whether that’s Airini, or Jeremiah (Toby Leonard Moore), the tow-truck driver who brings her broken-down car into Mystery Bay, or local mechanic Connor (Bob Franklin), or Francis (Stephen Curry), the eager-beaver real estate agent who sells her a crappy local house.

But in Mystery Bay, everyone is so outrageously hostile that I again wondered if this was supposed to be funny. Are we meant to read ‘Stella’ as a comedic archetype, or are we meant to read her as being the realistic character in a heightened world? She’s playing this role like she’s in a BBC thriller, while everyone else is doing SeaChange.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about capability as a character spectrum. The Mission: Impossible films are perhaps at one extreme: they offer the vicarious pleasure of seeing endlessly capable people rising resourcefully to challenging situations. Even when a thriller protagonist isn’t capable, they’re rarely framed as completely hapless: they’re just someone who may not yet understand their situation, but is figuring it out.

Dusseldorp has spent her career playing competent people, so it’s painful to see her blundering about like this. I wasn’t sure if ‘Stella’s’ incompetence is a joke about her class privilege, as in Schitts Creek, or whether she’s eventually going to don the standard jeans, jumpers and beanies of the rural-noir protagonist and figure something out for once in her life.

Episode one was so irritating that I didn’t want to watch more, but I pushed myself through the first four episodes. Episode two starts to pick up, but then episode three introduces Yael Stone as another newcomer to Mystery Bay, who’s just as annoyingly dependent on a flimsy, irrelevant social contract as Stella is.

A Potemkin village

‘I like things to be straight and clear and above board!’ Stella says.

‘Strange choice of town to live in, then,’ drawls Jeremiah.

As Bay of Fires continues, it seems to become another kind of story: about how a legitimately malevolent criminal organisation that the witness protection program doesn’t even know about has built up here over decades, under the cover of rural obscurity.

Perhaps Mystery Bay seems parodic because it is a Potemkin village: a fake sleepy town, where the local CWA committee, publican, sheep farmer, motel operator, school bus driver and so on are in fact criminals, who’ve merely been assigned to suitable small-town occupations.

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The show’s cynicism and contempt for police and government is its funniest aspect so far. As a satirical premise, this is much more promising than the straight thriller business you’ll see in the trailer. The Mystery Bay police station has burned down, and hapless local constable Jason (Andre de Vanny) squats in a caravan next door.

I don’t want to spoil the show’s viewing pleasures by revealing who really turns out to run the town, but let’s just say that veteran actors Nicholas Bell, Kerry Fox, Emily Taheny, Pamela Rabe and Roz Hammond are having a tremendous amount of fun here as Colourful Locals from Central Casting, while Moore’s Jeremiah seems to be set up as a Diver Dan figure (to return once more to SeaChange): an aloof yet frequently helpful presence who’s always popping up when “Stella” needs something.

The enigmatic flashbacks that begin every episode are another clue that this is more than a fish-out-of-water comedy. So is the as-yet-unexplained religious group known as ‘the Community’, led by Matt Nable and depicted vaguely like the real-life Exclusive Brethren, with thuggish men and silent, cowed women in headscarves.

It’s lucky that Bay of Fires is screening on the ABC, where shows can afford to indulge in whole peninsulas worth of slow narrative burns and trust that audiences will stick around to see them pay off. I can’t see this working as well on a streaming service, where audiences might just pick something else to watch.

Why stick around for a noir salad of super grim moments, paired with screwball dialogue that mainly feels stressful and flippant?

Bay of Fires screens on Sundays at 8.30pm on ABC iview and ABC TV.

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).